The international community has failed to deal with the deadly Ebola virus because it mainly kills poor Africans, Britain’s top public health doctor has claimed.
Dr John Ashton, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, compared the situation to the early years of the AIDS epidemic and attacked the “moral bankruptcy” of a system which gives drug companies no reason to invest in treatments for “powerless minority groups”.
Writing in the Independent on Sunday, he said: “We must respond to this emergency as if it was in Kensington, Chelsea, and Westminster. And we must ‘get real’ over economic development.
“We must also tackle the scandal of the unwillingness of the pharmaceutical industry to invest in research to produce treatments and vaccines, something they refuse to do because the numbers involved are, in their terms, so small and don’t justify the investment.
“This is the moral bankruptcy of capitalism acting in the absence of an ethical and social framework.”
He said the international community needed to be “shamed into real commitment” to address the “poverty and environmental squalor” in which epidemics can thrive.
On Friday officials from the World Health Organisation said the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was “moving faster than our efforts to control it” and would be “catastrophic” if it continued to get worse.
The disease, which has a fatality rate of 90 per cent without proper treatment and has no cure, has already claimed more than 700 lives across Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria in what is now the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history.
As if to underline Dr Ashton’s words, two US aid workers infected in the region have been flown back for specialist treatment in the States, even as locals suffer from a lack of clean water and adequate health facilities.
But while his comments are perhaps the strongest intervention on the topic so far by a medical professional in the stalled Ebola market, they are by no means the first.
Last week Dr Daniel Bausch, an Ebola specialist at Tulane University in New Orleans, told the US website Vox that there had been “significant developments” in fighting the disease but that “economics” stood in the way.
He said: “These outbreaks affect the poorest communities on the planet. Although they do create incredible upheaval, they are relatively rare events. So if you look at the interest of pharmaceutical companies, there is not huge enthusiasm.”
He added that research in the US was “almost exclusively” funded by the government and driven by fears that terrorists might use the disease against first world citizens.
A viral vaccine effective in macaque monkeys has existed since 2005, but money has not been available to test it on humans, according to Heinz Feldman of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.
In 2009, it was used on a German lab technician who had accidentally pricked herself with an Ebola-infected needle, but there is no way to tell whether the vaccine was what saved her, or even if she was infected in the first place.
Another project, using $140m from the Department of Defence, shows promise, but has only now reached human testing after a brief funding limbo in 2012. Scientists at the time lamented that a commercial vaccine was “unlikely”.
Inequality is not the only reason for a weak market in Ebola vaccines, as the disease only afflicts a relatively small number of people worldwide. The WHO lists only 1,590 known Ebola deaths since it was discovered, whereas measles killed 122,000 in 2012.
Serious outbreaks are comparatively rare, and its extreme fatality actually limits its ability to spread because its victims die before they can infect too many others.